Just about this time – 50 years ago – I was sitting on the side of the steps leading into the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. A young Black preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. was into his speech on the Mall on the theme of “I have a dream”.
I’d finished my tasks as part of the local amalgamation of civil rights groups centered in factory towns in southern New England. Our Freedom Train had made its assigned stops picking folks up. We made it to DC without incident. We found our way over to the Mall and settled into a day of protest for jobs and civil rights. Frankly, I was exhausted.
Among other needs, one that I almost always filled was security against every kind of creep who might attack our protest – whether they were creeps from the John Birch Society, precursor to the Tea Party, or agents planted by any one of the dozens of police from FBI to local coppers.
I sat and listened. And sitting with three other young women and men from my detail, we discussed and rejoiced over the explosion of talent and leadership reaching the national stage that day. All the speakers, all the musicians, and especially Dr. King and his wonderful speech to the world.
Congressman John Lewis – then, speaking on behalf of SNCC – and still at it. We’ll never relent.
Fifty years ago Wednesday, John Lewis was the youngest speaker to address the estimated quarter-million people at the March on Washington.
“Those who have said be patient and wait — we must say that we cannot be patient,” the 23-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) said that day. “We do not want our freedom gradually. But we want to be free now.”
Aug. 28, 1963, also was the day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, and few are as thoughtful about the significance of the day as Lewis, now a Democratic congressman from Georgia and civil rights icon.
That summer, the nation had seen black children attacked by dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham, Ala., as well as the murder of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers.
In his 1963 speech, Lewis thundered: “Where is the political party that would make it unnecessary to march on Washington?”
Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, says Lewis originally planned to give a much angrier speech.
“[The vote] is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society,” Lewis told the crowd Saturday. “And we’ve got to use it.”
“Unlike all the other leaders there, John, coming out of the SNCC leadership, really experienced that violence,” says Bunch. “He experienced that violence as a Freedom Rider. He experienced that violence at the sit-ins. He found himself saying how crucial it was not to wait for freedom because waiting for freedom also meant that there would be years more violence.”
Lewis is still fighting, he told a crowd Saturday during a march to commemorate the original demonstration 50 years ago.
“There are forces — there are people who want to take us back,” he said. “We cannot go back. We’ve come too far. We want to go forward.”
Lewis said he never thought 50 years later that some of the same issues would be back on the table.
“I thought we had completed the fight for the right to vote, the right to participate in the democratic process. I thought we were in a process of reforming the justice system. But when I see something like what the Supreme Court did, or what happened to Trayvon Martin, it tells me over and over again that we’re not there yet. We have not finished.”
You’ll get to hear Dr. King’s speech beaucoup times, today. And then it will be put away till the next annual event on television. You’ll get to hear John Lewis on the floor of Congress any day, every day. Because the miserable cowards, the bigots and racists of America haven’t gone away.
We shall overcome – but, only if we count first of all on our own selves, our own feet to do the marching, our voices to lift up in song. Yes, and those of us with a place in the digital world have a responsibility to speak up there, as well. Being social doesn’t mean you slack off on changing society for the better.